Technology Theory

The Intellectual Origins of Surveillance Tech

The philosophical backgrounds of Palantir Technologies CEO Alex Karp and his co-founder Peter Thiel offer surprising insights into the company’s guiding ethos.

Not long ago I responded to a tweet that was making the rounds:

My response was far less popular (374 likes) than the original tweet (6.5 likes), despite being obviously more correct. (Sigh.) Clearly, the people of twitter dot com prefer more comforting narratives about the humanities. Nevertheless, the exploration of what they have contributed to the creation of the massive surveillance apparatus in which we all exist must continue.

Palantir Technologies, less famous than Paypal, Facebook, or other Thiel-associated enterprises, but just as notable, takes its name from the “seeing stones” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It specializes in big data analytics, and contracts with intelligence and defense agencies on digital surveillance projects. It is often cited as the source of the intel that allowed the US to find Osama bin Laden.

One strong piece of evidence for my claim that Thiel’s humanities background informed the creation of Palantir is his essay “The Straussian Moment,” first presented as a conference paper in 2004, then published in 2007 in the volume Politics and Apocalypse. Thiel founded Palantir in 2003-4, so the essay was composed in exactly the same period in his career when he was establishing the company.

The essay’s title tells us explicitly how he was thinking about the early 2000s historical moment: as “the Straussian moment,” that is, a moment best approached by way of the ideas of Leo Strauss. This was, of course, the post-9/11 moment, and according to Thiel, that event had “called into question . . . the entire political and military framework of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and indeed of the modern age.” The essay offers a thorough critique of liberal internationalism as a naïve and obsolete security framework. 9/11, for Thiel, shattered the longstanding assumption that integration into the global market would bring peace and cooperation between nations. The latter belief was based on a simplistic model of the homo economicus, which artificially bracketed the violent passions and fanatical commitments that truly drove human behavior. For Thiel, 9/11 was a philosophical challenge to rethink assumptions about human nature.

From Strauss, Thiel draws the idea that “even in the most liberal or open-minded regimes there exist certain deeply problematic truths.” Among these are dark truths about violence and the state. Thiel quotes Strauss’s statement that “there cannot be a great and glorious society without the equivalent of the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus.” He concludes from Strauss that the liberal myth of the enlightened self-interest of the homo economicus as the basis of universal harmony was always just that: a myth. There was always a dark, violent side to the American and global liberal project, which wiser observers (including Strauss) grasped, but avoided discussing too overtly.

One of the essay’s most revealing passages concerns the very business Thiel was entering into at the time he wrote it. In his discussion of the disavowed darker side of the American liberal state, he quotes Strauss’s statement that “the most just society cannot survive without intelligence, espionage.” Thiel concludes from Strauss’s statement that “[i]nstead of the United Nations, filled with interminable and inconclusive parliamentary debates . . . we should consider Echelon, the secret coordination of the world’s intelligence services, as the decisive path to a truly global pax Americana.”

Palantir might be understood, based on this section of Thiel’s essay, as applied Straussianism: an enterprise that acknowledges the deep, dangerous undercurrent of human violence and harnesses the reams of data generated by the internet to monitor and control it.

The other key figure for Palantir is Alex Karp. Like Thiel, Karp does not come from a primarily technological background: both did law degrees, and Karp took his humanities training further than Thiel, earning a Ph.D. in social theory at Goethe University in Frankfurt. It’s been widely claimed that his advisor was the famous theorist Jürgen Habermas, but a quick glance at his dissertation (available online) reveals this is not the case. Karp’s work does engage with the Frankfurt school of critical theory with which Habermas’s work is identified, in the form of the latter’s teacher Theodor W. Adorno.

Moira Weigel’s recent article “Palantir Goes to the Frankfurt School” offers a thorough reading of Karp’s dissertation, Aggression in the Life-World. It is a complex and technical account of what is obviously a theoretically dense text, but Weigel offers valuable insight into how Karp’s philosophical insights converge with what I’m describing as Thiel’s “Straussian” agenda for Palantir. Like Thiel, Karp turns out to be primarily interested in the repressed violence that threatens human social life, although his theoretical account of it is distinct.

Karp’s dissertation, as Weigel summarizes it, borrows and elaborates Adorno’s critique of what he calls “jargon.” Adorno’s target is the language of existential philosophy, especially that of Martin Heidegger. For him, Heidegger uses the obscure terminology for which he is famous – words like “Dasein” – to mystify historical and political predicaments as universal conditions. As Weigel glosses Adorno’s critique, “Heidegger turns the real precarity of people who might at any time lose their jobs and homes into a defining condition of Dasein . . . To this extent, jargon has an a- or even anti-political character: it disguises current and contingent effects of social domination into eternal and unchangeable characteristics of human existence.”

According to Weigel, Karp’s interest (unlike Adorno’s) is on “the question of what psychological needs jargon fulfills.” His answer to this question relies on a Freudian assumption of the primacy of aggression as a manifestation of the death drive. A basic problem of social existence, from this point of view, is the need to regulate and/or sublimate such anti-social impulses for the sake of social stability. “Jargon” of the sort that Adorno critiques, Karp argues, serves as a way to “admit aggression into social life and give it a central role in consolidating identity.” The idea appears to be that “jargon,” which excludes those who do not grasp it while constituting a community of those who do, acts out a hostility towards the social order as it exists while constituting an imaginary community of “those who speak, and hear” it. In this way, “[w]ishes that contradict social norms are brought into the web of social relations . . . in such a way that they do not need to be sanctioned or punished for violating social norms.”

There is much more to say about Weigel’s account of Karp’s dissertation, but this brief synopsis suffices to draw certain parallels with “The Straussian Moment.” Like Karp, Thiel is concerned with the violent, irrational dimension of human life and the threat it poses to the social order. For Thiel, the 9/11 attacks are the key illustration of this danger, and of the West’s ideological naïveté with regard to it. From Strauss, Thiel draws the claim that this darker dimension of social existence must be addressed in an indirect manner, both through a philosophical discourse that acknowledges it subtly rather than overtly, and through modes of politics that operate largely outside of the public sphere, such as espionage. That is because explicitly acknowledging the deeper reality of this violence would foster cynicism and disillusionment that would ultimately corrode the very order that must be upheld. Karp’s interest in “jargon” similarly proceeds from the same concern with the disavowed reverse side of the social order and the ways that violent impulses hostile to it can be contained or integrated through indirect expression.

According to Weigel, Karp’s repurposing of Adorno’s account of jargon represents a step backward from the latter philosopher’s work. Whereas Adorno “locat[ed] jargon in specific experiences of modernity,” she writes, Karp “transforms it into an expression of drives that, because they are timeless, are merely psychological.” She claims that Palantir proceeds from the same ahistorical premise, since “[i]n data analysis, the role of the analyst is not to demystify and dispel reification. On the contrary, it is precisely to fix identity from its digital traces and to make predictions on the basis of the same.” Like jargon in Adorno’s account, data analytics “covers for domination insofar as it makes the human condition—or rather, human conditions as they are at the time of speaking—appear unchangeable.” From Weigel’s perspective, Adorno’s account of jargon (and related Marxist and historicist analytical frameworks) offers a method of accounting for the ways that “[a]lgorithms take the histories of oppression embedded in training data and project them into the future.”

In “The Straussian Moment,” Thiel offers a sort of preemptive rejoinder to Weigel’s critique of Karp. He clearly regards the Marxian assumption that economic deprivation and domination are the primary drivers of political conflict as the left-wing version of the homo economicus myth that 9/11 has left in ruins. As he writes: “the singular example of bin Laden and his followers has rendered incomplete the economically motivated political thought that has dominated the modern West . . . [f]rom The Wealth of Nations on the right to Das Kapital on the left.”

His proximate evidence is the basic fact that the most dramatic attacks against the capitalist West were masterminded by “upper-middle-class Saudi Arabians, often with college degrees and great expectations,” motivated by religious piety, not outrage against the economic inequality of which their leader was a beneficiary. The West was caught off-guard, he claims, because it assumed that violence against it would come from the economically dispossessed: “from favelas in Rio de Janeiro, or from starving peasants in Burkina Faso.” This mode of analysis had failed to identify the real sources of social instability. One can imagine, then, that Thiel might have seen great value in Karp’s alternative method: to parse language for traces of unconscious aggression in order to (in Weigel’s phrase) “reveal otherwise hidden identities and affinities—and the drive to commit violence that lies latent in them.”

Thiel makes a positive case for modes of analysis focused not on economic relations but on the deep, often destructive moral passions that, he claims, truly motivate human beings. Karp, as Weigel puts it, similarly “makes aggressive violence the substance of the social.” Although Karp derives his view from Freud and other modern thinkers, it looks like another variant of what Thiel calls the “older Western tradition . . . that offered a less dogmatically economic view of human nature.” Peculiarly, then, Palantir’s sophisticated technological enterprise seems to follow directly from an explicit reversion to the pre-Enlightenment models of human nature.